New, Deadly, Easily Spread — the Avian Flu

smallpoxJust to make my point from yesterday’s post about the need for the media to make important things interesting, this week’s New Yorker features a lengthy explanation of the history, threat, and measures to contain the Avian Flu. At time of writing, the full text is not online, but this excellent interview with the article’s author Michael Specter is. Although, for the reasons I explained yesterday, you should read the entire article, here are a few excerpts to tease you::

The strain that killed an 11-year-old Thai girl last September is different; in the past two years, it has caused the deaths of hundreds of millions of animals in nearly a dozen Asian countries. No such virus has ever spread so quickly over such a wide geographical area. Most viruses stick to a single species. This one has already affected a more diverse group than any other type of flu, and it has killed many animals previously thought to be resistant: blue pheasants, black swans, turtledoves, clouded leopards, mice, pigs, domestic cats…The virus also kills people — so far forty-two have died, including thirteen Vietnamese since Christmas, 3/4 of all known avian flu infections — an ominous mortality rate…

A pandemic is the viral equivalent of a perfect storm. There are three essential conditions, which rarely converge, and they are impossible to predict. But the requirements are clear. A new flu virus must emerge from the animal reservoirs that have always produced and harbored such viruses — one that has never infected humans and therefore one to which no person would have antibodies. Second, the virus has to actually make humans sick (Most don’t). Finally, it must be able to spread efficiently — through coughing, sneezing, or a handshake…

It’s hard to overstate the damage that the death of sixty million chickens has caused to Thailand’s national psyche. Until last year, it had been the world’s fourth largest exporter of poultry…The FAO estimates that 200 million farmers in the region keep an average of 15 birds each — most prone to infection from migrating fowl on the Siberia-China flyway…Most of the [Thai] flocks have been killed. The government of Thailand compensated the farmers, but the money didn’t make up for their losses, or persuade them to change methods. It’s hard to change the habits of a nation, especially when it costs a great deal and may be futile…

During most flu seasons, as many as 20% of the American population becomes infected, about 36,000 die, and more than 200,000 are admitted to hospitals…Because this virus evolves so quickly, an annual flu shot is at best a highly educated bet on which strain is most likely to infect you…Ex-H&SS secretary Tommy Thompson cited a potential epidemic of Avian Flu as one of the greatest dangers facing the US…At least 180 million people would die in a pandemic of similar severity to the 1918 outbreak.

These viruses almost always appear in the most densely populated parts of densely populated third world countries, which is why Hong Kong has featured so prominently in the enormous but uphill battle to try to identify, contain and vaccinate against them. But as a Thai public health officer said “We are certainly better than we ever were at detecting viruses, but we are also much better at spreading them.”

As the online interview explains, the efforts of public health officers are all focused on trying to eradicate these viruses or inoculate humanity against them. Good doctors, everyone, doing their best to treat the symptoms of the illness and ignoring its cause. Viruses (like smallpox), bacteria (like anthrax) and prions (like Mad Cow) are nature’s way of saying Slow Downthere are too many of you, with inadequate biodiversity, living too close together for the good of the whole life organism that is Earth. Nature has been wired for billions of years to counter excessive growth of any species because that is the best way to optimize the overall health of the planet.

But, of course, no health official who wants to keep his job would dare say that all efforts are futile — indeed, worse than futile, because they just prolong and worsen the inevitable “correction” to restore natural balance. Don’t expect the WHO or the CDC to stand up and say:

We need to reduce and reverse human population growth rates quickly and drastically, and spread out, and stop sending animals across borders, and stop crossing borders ourselves if we don’t have to, and stop narrowing the global diversity of foods we eat to such a few homogeneous varietals of each crop and animal, and stop keeping animals penned up in large numbers in close quarters pumped full of antibiotics and hormones and soaked in other antibiotics, and stop poisoning the air and the water and the food we eat with stuff that makes everyone sick and weakens our immune systems, and stop swallowing antibiotics when we don’t need them.

After all, that would be heresy, outrageous, an insult to human pride and ingenuity, against the will of God, and a denial of our manifest destiny. But this is the obvious, and the only sure way to prevent pandemic. The only real question is whether we will be smart enough to realize it, and do something about it, before nature gets tired of waiting and does what she must.

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14 Responses to New, Deadly, Easily Spread — the Avian Flu

  1. I guess that this is more a propos than ever.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Yes, for sure. When I read the article I thought it was very timely, and then I looked back and saw it was written three years ago. *sigh*

  3. Joe Deely says:

    Dave,I’m afraid I have to disagree with you again… I really do agree with a lot of your other posts. Really. :) I guess we just disagree on the state of the world. First…there is no doubt that more and faster travel will cause diseases to spread faster. However, that doesn’t mean they will kill more people.The last major pandemic was 1918 when the world had 1.8 billion people. Even with a much lower population and a lot less travel, somewhere between 20-40 million people died.Are you saying we should lower the world population back to 1.8 billion people. How do you propose to do that? Even with less travel in 1918, 20 – 40 million died.Do you want the population to drop even further? How about a world population of 360 million. This is an estimate of the world population when the Black plague occurred(1347-1351). This time there was a LOT less travel so it took four years for between 40-75 million people to die.Less people, less travel but MORE people died.When we do have another pandemic – and we will someday – I would prefer to bet on improving medicine and science to lower the mortality rate. Even with this wonderful tool – the Internet – I still believe that people traveling to conferences and traveling to work together are more effective. As for population… we already are reducing population growth and by the middle of this century (2050-2070) the world will start losing population.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Joe: (1) The reason more people died proportionally in the Black Plague and 1918 was poorer sanitation and less knowledge. It only makes sense that the more people available to catch a pandemic disease (recall the 3 conditions), the more will die, and travel vastly increases risk of spread. (2) Actually a world population of 360 million would be ideal — and could be achieved in 2 centuries if there was sufficient will to reduce birth rate to no more than one per woman. It would be sustainable, and very healthy for both people and the rest of life on the planet. (3) Yes, travel is better, but here is exactly where technology CAN help — by making the need to travel much less. (4) The myth that population will level off and decline is very dangerous — over the past 25 years the ‘high average’ projections have been almost right on (the ‘average’ projections said US population including migration would be in decline by now, when it is still doubling every 60 years), Those projections suggest a ‘slowing’ of pop increase globally from exponential to linear — i.e. 6.5 billion now, 10 billion by 2050, 13.5 billion by 2100, with resource consumption increasing at double those rates.

  5. Ray says:

    “Nature has been wired for billions of years to counter excessive growth of any species because that is the best way to optimize the overall health of the planet.”Dave, to the extent that this statement is true, you don’t need to keep this blog or work toward sustainablitly. If nature has these mechanisms in place to optimize the overall health of the planet, then it will. Human technology and actions will eventually be reigned in because they are part of nature.Fortunately, the statement isn’t really true in any meaningful way. Nature has not been wired for billions of years to counter excessive growth of any one species or to optimize health of the planet. Excessive growth of any species is countered because it is energetically expensive and the fact of growth cuts off the sources of energy. This has always and will always be true, it didn’t only become true in the past few billion years. It is a corollary of the conservation of energy. Nature is not optimizing the health of the planet. Global extinction and heat death of the universe are as natural outcomes as sustained life, but one wouldn’t typically call those states of optimal health.Since there are these alternative outcomes, it makes sense to work for the outcomes that we prefer, those where humans continue to exist. This requires a recognition of the underlying physical and biological constraints on life and growth.I am not optimistic. There is a concrete advantage for each individual in having an additional child and a small disadvantage to each person on the planet for each additional child. For each individual it makes sense to have that child.

  6. Joe Deely says:

    Ah.. we agree on the first partitem 1) people die from disease because of poor sanitation and lack of knowledge… but I add not because of too many or too few people.One child per person women… wow! I’m not sure how you did your math when you said that we could get to 360 million in two centuries. I get to a population of 360 million 3 generations from now and a population of under 75 million 5 generations from now. Also, how does this scenario stop? Do you tell the women in the third generation and onward that they now must start having 2+ kids again??(Here’s my math , I assume that 90% of women can or want to have their alloted 1 child and I also assume that there are 2 billion women alive now who haven’t had any kids yet.)current 2,000,000,000 womenfirst 900,000,000 womensecond 405,000,000 womenthird 182,250,000 womenfourth 82,012,500 womenfifth 36,905,625 womenAs far as the UN population numbers being a myth, I am not sure where you get your numbers. The projections I have seen have been declining over time… except for their recent release – see which shows a rise from 8.9 to 9.1 billion. In my mind, even these numbers are probably too high. Take a close look at assumptions for fertility rates of countries like Japan, Italy etc… for some reason the projections on these countries is for the fertility rate to climb from 1.3 or less now back up to 1.85 by 2050. There is no data to back these rising fertility rates. Also, countries that are now near 2.0 are projected to decline to 1.85 and no lower. Again, why won’t these follow path of European countries and head down below 1.5?

  7. Rob Paterson says:

    Another track?Yes one of the drivers is human population but the other is our cheap food policy and industrial ways of raising animals.Chicken kept the way they are guarantees the epidemicA reminder is that all the bad human diseases arose from concentrations of humans and farming. All are a product of animal to human – human to human movement

  8. Ken Hirsch says:

    “Nature has been wired for billions of years to counter excessive growth of any species because that is the best way to optimize the overall health of the planet.”This is just magical thinking, as I’ve pointed out before. Viruses are opportunistic, and evolve only in response to their local self-interest. How could a spec of nucleic acid less than a micron in size even know what would optimize the overall health of the planet, when we humans can’t even agree?It is known that epidemics of acute, species-specific diseases can only be sustained in populations of a certain size. This is elementary epidemiology that dates from the 1920s and has nothing to do with the “overall health of the planet.” But note that even New Brunswick has a population large enough to sustain measles. It is fantasy to suggest that populations are going to shrink below the epidemic thresholds. Parameters for the spread of disease, such as the contact rate, grow little, if at all, with population size or density above the critical threshold.Minimum populations for chronic diseases, such as tuberculosis, are very small, e.g. 180 to 440 persons.Although many diseases have come from farm animals, it is certainly not true that “all bad human diseases arose from concentrations of humans and farming”, as Rob Paterson says. Tuberculosis dates from before farming and even Homo erectus suffered from diseases such as yaws. Pre-Columbian Americans suffered from fewer diseases, but did have tuberculosis, yaws, and Chagas’ disease, among others. One of the worst human diseases, malaria, is ancient and present in areas without farm animals.Wild animals have diseases and epidemics (“epizootics“, actually), too.

  9. lugon says:

    A pandemic now would be more disruptive if it’s faster. That’s why we should find ways to increase “social distance” – even among countries. If we buy time then we can manufacture vaccines. Bullets do harm because of their speed.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Joe: You have to look at fertility rates and demographic distribution by age when you do those projections. I’ve done a lot of modelling on this and it would take 2 centuries at one child per women to bring human population down that far. The 9 billion is still the middle projection, which for the past 50 years has ALWAYS been very wrong — the ‘high middle’ estimate has almost always been close, and it’s still 12-14 billion by the end of this century, and still growing (in fact, slightly re-accelerating).Ken: The Gaia Theory is kind of magical, which is why I initially doubted it. But if you read about it and study it, you might be surprised. Diseases aren’t any more perfect than people — they make mistakes and hit populations small and random, but the giant plagues have always hit severely crowded (relative to population) areas. And as Manning says in against the grain, it’s not just humans that are overpopulated and crowded, it’s our farmed animals and monoculture plants as well — diseases that can take us out could hit our fragile, overcultivated foods as well as ourselves.

  11. Joe Deely says:

    Dave,I don’t mean to beat this point to death, but I couldn’t let you get away with your ALWAYS comment. :)I would turn around your comment and say that the middle variant has almost ALWAYS been too high. Instead of just making this as a comment I will cite references.————————————————————————-From the UN World Population 1978 Revision”At the UN, mortality assumptions are initially made in terms of life expectancy at birth and then in terms of age-sex patterns of probabilities of survival corresponding to different life expectancy levels at birth. Some of the results of the 1978 revision of the medium variant of the estimates and projections are shown in table form. The world total population of 4,033,000,000 in 1975 is projected to reach 6,199,000,000 by the year 2000.”————————————————————————The actual population in 2000

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Joe: These latest UN numbers are projections, not forecasts, and they are seriously flawed for the same reasons the 1975 predictions that North American population would be in decline by 2000 are seriously flawed: (a) because there is no basis for simply projecting a continuing decline in fertility rates, and ignoring the cultural imperatives that will mitigate such declines, (b) because the impact of immigration is completely ignored, and (c) because immigrants tend to sustain the fertility rates of the country from which they came, for at least a generation or two. So right now North American population (Canada + US only) is increasing by 3.3 million per year and that rate of increase is increasing. The US population bureau currently estimates its own population will rise by 2050 to more than the UN’s HIGH estimate for all of North America. Despite the upsurge, the UN assumes that the North American fertility and growth rates are going to suddenly reverse course again and drop by 50% by 2050! This is based on a strictly linear projection of 1950-2000 decelerations, which defies all logic except perhaps to statisticians. In fact the US population bureau’s ‘high average’ forecast is for nearly a billion Americans by 2100, over twice the UN’s ‘peak’ projection. Even the UN admits to the imprecision in their numbers — a difference of 0.2 in global average fertility rates creates a 400% difference in longer term projections. As in all things, you have to look at the micro trends which have, and will, wreak havoc on mindless linear projections. The devil is in the details. As for your bet, I won’t be around in 2050. The more important bet would be 14 billion by 2100, consuming resources at 8x the sustainable rate, but neither of us will be around to collect on that bet, nor, I suspect, will we want to be.

  13. steve southwick says:

    Dave,All of your comments have good grounds for consideration. Let us consider Avian Flu and its possible effects. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is quite correct to be alarmed due to the available figures on the mortality rate of Avian Flu. This particular type of flu does not always develop as ordinary flu which makes the restraining and tracking down of possible contacts difficult. If an outbreak did occur, taking into account the complexity of the agent, medical resources could (worst sinario)be overwhelmed.I was a lad of twelve when the outbreak of Asian Flu developed in 1958, and at one time within a school class numbering thirty two, only nine of us remained unaffected. This included me, and even then the authorities reckoned they had enough vaccine for twenty five percent of the population.To believe that a developed world population is bettter prepaired having better living conditions is a false one. We live in a much more sanitized world than we did in 1958, but then we had a much higher natural immunity due to our living conditions and diet.

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for the ‘first-hand’ account, Steve.

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